People like polo: Polo is no longer the preserve of the rich. Richard Simpson gets in the swing with the help of a milk crate and an electric horse

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The Independent Culture
Jilly Cooper's novels, while compulsive reading, have a lot to answer for. I arrived tentatively at my first lesson of polo expecting to be greeted by a Major Such-and-such and a stableyard littered with Rupert Campbell- Black groupies. When I found myself being led off to a row of milk crates along with an undistinguished group of fellow beginners, my preconceptions about this game were firmly hoofed into touch.

'Polo is a game for everyone,' according to Elizabeth and Peter Grace from the Ascot Park Polo Club, whose recent list of clients have included a librarian, a supermarket manager, a blacksmith, numerous secretaries and a car mechanic. The popular misconception that the sport is mainly played by inordinately wealthy and swarthy Argentine men is, they say, largely due to the fact that the public only hears about 'high goal' games - those played by professional and semi-professional players. In fact, 90 per cent of matches are played by nameless enthusiasts, all in it for love.

The importance of learning to swing a polo stick, a lighter version of a croquet mallet, is crucial. If you don't, there's every probability that you will clout your pony on the head, as I discovered on the club's mechanical wooden horse. Having never ridden before in my life, I was advised by my instructor to try out my mistakes on something inanimate before graduating to the real thing. I then took the further precaution of joining my 14 classmates for a communal swing on top of some milk crates.

Mastering this wielding action is also necessary for the safety of other players since the game is fought at close quarters and with plenty of argy-bargy. 'I suppose the nearest sport to it is ice hockey,' Peter Grace suggested. 'It is quite an aggressive game and I don't let people play matches until they are competent and confident enough to play.' He paused, then added 'Let's have a game'.

Without further ado I was strapped into a helmet and introduced to Libre. The polo school prides itself on stocking ponies to suit all standards but I couldn't help wishing that somebody had slipped Libre a few cubes of Valium. Matches, even 'low goal' games, are played at a gallop and are divided up into four chukkas of seven-and-a-half minutes each. In more advanced games they are played so fast that players need a fresh pony for each quarter. Thankfully, our one-chukka match was played at little more than walking pace and Libre was experienced enough to ignore any confused left and right commands.

While the Graces admit that it isn't in the same price bracket as a game of tennis, they remain adamant that polo can be enjoyed by all. A two-hour lesson costs pounds 60 and Grace reckons he can get most people playing to a reasonable standard after 10 sessions. Once this is overcome, ponies can be hired for pounds 25 per chukka. If you are prepared to dent your wallet, the world of Jilly Cooper is open to all.

Ascot Park Polo Club, Wood Hall, Sunningdale, Berkshire, SL5 9QW (0344 21312)

(Photograph omitted)

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